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What Higher Ed Can Learn from MTV

In a recent FastCompany Expert blog posting, "Are You M-Ready,” Nick Shore, Senior Vice President of Strategic Consumer Insights and Research at MTV, shared some fascinating and provocative insights into the generation we are referring to when discussing the impact of mobile computing on higher education IT. Shore calls it the Millennial Generation, but there are many labels that have been used to describe them. When I was working on the ECAR Study of Undergraduates and IT, I struggled to associate a label with this generation because our findings revealed a such a wide range of technological skills and inclinations, but during today’s Mobile Sprint Webinar on “The Future of Mobile Computing” the Twitterverse, using the hashtag #EDUSprint, had an interesting take on labeling the so-called Millennial Generation in relation to the idea of their mobility. A tweet shared an evolving nomenclature from Digital Immigrants (pre 1976) to Digital Natives (1976-1991) to Web Natives (1991-2007) to Mobile Natives (2007+) which prompted a hilarious set of responses from the dueling Hulk-tweeters (@EDUCAUSE_HULK and @EDTECHHULK) including : “HULK HEAR TERM MOBILE NATIVE! HULK ANGRY! HULK NOT FINISHED SMASHING DIGITAL NATIVE TERM YET!” …but I digress.

Shore explains that MTV decided from the outset “to never grow old with the audience” and to reinvent itself periodically for each “generation next.” As such, MTV is one of the companies impacted first and most dramatically by the Millennial generation’s coming of age and the company has identified a series of unique traits of this generation they believe will have dramatic implications on who they will become as consumers. If you view our students as consumers and what we deliver as a product, Shore’s article is a must-read.

According to Shore, the “recalibration of the nuclear family” flattened the hierarchical structure of authoritarian parent leadership to a democracy with a collective (if not kid-driven) decision-making process.” After a century of a "parent-centered" structure, the nucleus of the family is now the child, and the Millennials (or whatever we want to call our current set of traditional-aged undergrads) are the first generation raised in that new nuclear family structure. Shore argues that this shifting of family power dynamics has created a highly empowered Millennial generation, and technology has promoted an on-demand, “push button, everything free, always-on culture” that has amplified the social coding of their parenting.

Based on what they claim to know about what makes this generation tick, MTV has distilled down five principles or challenges for anyone thinking about what it will mean to cater to this generation. All are excellent observations but the 5th is most applicable to our Sprint Week’s topic of mobility in higher education: What will it mean when there is no such thing as an un-connected product? It’s not news to us that this generation exhibits a need to be constantly connected, but Shore extrapolates this to mean they are “existentially uncomfortable with the feeling of being ‘alone.’” In fact, MTV deduced from their research that the automobile, the icon of freedom, mobility, and independence for prior generations, has become in danger of being perceived as a "disconnection device" for Millennials who feel trapped inside the “hermetically sealed vehicle” which renders them unable to text and check their status update, resulting in the feeling of the open road as “the very antithesis of freedom, more like isolation.”

I don’t know if the iPhone, iPad, or Droid device in our students’ pockets, purses, and backpacks is the new symbol of freedom and independence, but as a historian I do wonder if we can learn anything from how automobiles affected college campuses…but I digress. I believe MTV’s research should be factored into any attempt to integrate small-device mobility (or "post-PC devices" as Derek Bruff labeled them in a recent tweet) into the educational ecosystem. If, as Shore writes, “a product which is 'un-connected' has a certain inertness” for this generation,” then it is our challenge to re-imagine our “product” experience to avoid this perception. We must ask how to increase our product’s innate connectedness, and mobile computing is the key to this solution. I don’t think our students will be giving up their cars anytime soon, but I wonder which they would give up first: their keys or their phones? Any discussion about mobile computing in higher ed, and in particular new learning strategies, should include what we know about the rapidly-evolving characteristics of the "next generation" arriving on campus.

MTV may not be as relevant as it was during my generation...anyone else remember the first heady days of "Video Killed the Radio Star?"...but I think they know their market pretty darn well. The question is, do we?

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